Retuning the Dial: Rethinking the Relationship between Radio and New American Music

Retuning the Dial: Rethinking the Relationship between Radio and New American Music

I am convinced that the unlikely marriage between the broadcast media and new American music in the 1930s occurred largely because radio technology was still so new. Two other factors led to the upsurge in new music programming at that time. The first was the coming-of-age of a new generation of American composers, many of whom were motivated by a desire to write music that “sounded American.” This desire frequently resulted in eminently “programmable” music: music that incorporated jazz, or American folksongs, for example.

The second factor had to do with the gradual commercialization of radio. (For much of the following information, I am indebted to Louis Carlat’s PhD dissertation Sound Values: Radio Broadcasts of Classical Music and American Culture (Johns Hopkins, 1995)).

NBC executives knew, at least by the time they hired Toscanini, in 1937, that classical music was unprofitable. Throughout the 1930s, however, commercial network executives still devoted some of their air time to a segment of the public who saw them as bearers of high cultural and moral standards. New music programming was one way for the network to discharge its obligation to this audience.

The radio career of Walter Damrosch illustrates how the expectations for classical music programming changed during NBC’s first fifteen years. NBC started broadcasting in 1926. When Damrosch gave up his concert career to join the musical staff of the new network in 1927, executives at the network supported his vision for the future of classical programming. Damrosch believed that classical music had the potential to replace popular music as the preferred entertainment of his radio audience. As more and more people tuned in to NBC’s classical programs, Damrosch prophesied, sponsors would line up to support them. It was with this vision in mind that NBC paid Damrosch to conduct weekly symphonic broadcasts during several seasons beginning in the late 1920s, and again after General Electric dropped their sponsorship in 1931. The network also “sustained” Damrosch’s “Music Appreciation Hour” starting in 1928.

By 1939, however, Damrosch was in “semi-retirement.” In the years since he had joined NBC, the expectations for classical programming had become less and less ambitious. The reason for this change, apparently, was the shift in power from the networks to the sponsors – and the sponsors had trouble with classical music. They felt that the classical audience was too small, and they also found “the conventions of musical performance too resistant to commercialization.”

By 1938, classical music had become a “costly, albeit necessary, public relations device.” The tide of commercialization that was sweeping through radio had prompted legislative efforts in Washington to restrict commercial interests in favor of more non-profit stations. The network continued to sustain classical programming to emphasize its commitment to its “social obligations.” However, this effort was truly made to benefit a small, but wealthy segment of the listening audience comprised of patrons of high culture. In the meantime, more effort was devoted to developing programs of more questionable value designed to reach a larger audience.

In a line of commercial reasoning that would eventually spell the downfall of the commissioning projects, NBC hired Toscanini in 1937, and wrote him a contract that would give them the most for their money. NBC was dealing with perhaps one of the first “target audiences,” and the network wanted to give these listeners the impression that they were doing a great deal for the arts, while they were, in fact, spending less than they had with Damrosch. NBC executives apparently encouraged reporters to quote Toscanini’s large salary – fifty thousand dollars a year – but they actually lowered the number of concerts to ten. The high price per production served as excellent “p.r.”

Another idea that began to change in the 1930s was that classical music would confer prestige on the network. Certainly, radio stations still “gain[ed] benefit by association” with the manifestations of high culture. The hiring of Toscanini, however, represented an acknowledgment that the networks were beginning to acquire their own power, a power great enough to “return the favor,” and confer prestige upon high culture. NBC made Toscanini a celebrity. Network executives created a “buzz” around the conductor, painting a picture of an “uncompromising genius.” In this wonderful circular arrangement, the more of a genius they made Toscanini out to be, the better it made them look.

It was in this protean stage of the complex relationship between the mass media and “high culture” that the composition contests and commissioning projects took place. These initiatives were another way to satisfy the target audience NBC hoped Toscanini would reach. In addition, with these projects, as it did with Toscanini, the stream of cultural prestige flowed both ways. The networks admirably discharged their obligation to the public by patronizing the arts, while at the same time adding to their own glory by implying that they possessed the discernment necessary to hand-pick the Beethovens of tomorrow.

In 1931, NBC launched the first of its composition contests. Later in the decade, CBS followed suit, with a series of prominent commissions. Together, these contests and commissions represented an unprecedented collaboration between new American music and the broadcast media. Other kinds of new music programming appeared throughout the 1930s, probably motivated by the commercial networks’ obligation to uphold “high culture.” The most important of these initiatives was probably the sporadic series of concerts organized by the League of Composers. The concerts were aired, at one time or another, by all three commercial networks in New York: CBS, NBC, and Mutual. I came across documentation for nine such concerts, and I am sure that there were more. The music performed on these concerts was always new, selected by a jury of three or four League members. Composers traded off the duty of explaining the music to the listening public. The music of at least twenty-seven American composers was heard in this manner.

The commercial stations also periodically made an effort to keep up with major national events in the field of new music. It appears, for instance, that NBC began making trips to the Festival of American Music in Rochester NY at least as early as 1937. Also in 1937, NBC broadcast parts of the American Chamber Music Society Festival, which included the premiere of Roger Sessions‘ challenging first string quartet. CBS, in the meantime, aired most of the Coolidge Festival from Washington, an event that likely included the premieres of several new works.

Very occasionally, new American compositions would make their way on to the programs of regularly-aired orchestras. As an example, I found a review of an April 1932 broadcast of the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Leopold Stokowski. The program consisted entirely of modern American music, and included Henry Cowell‘s Synchrony, part of Robert Russell Bennett‘s Abraham Lincoln Symphony, Charles Tomlinson GriffesPleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan, and an Atonal Fugue by Arcady Dubensky. Even Toscanini, noted for his conservative programming, conducted a few American scores during his years with the NBC Symphony. Modern Music reported that in the course of the 1938 season, for instance, Toscanini programmed twelve American compositions.

The last kind of programming initiative for which I found evidence was the “festival.” An early such event was the “Music Week” observed by several New York radio stations from May 4-11, 1930. “There were so many radio programs planned to honor this event,” wrote one reviewer, “that they…kept American composers on the air from morning till after midnight.” Joseph Littau, conducting the Roxy Symphony Orchestra, devoted one of his regular Sunday afternoon broadcasts to the works of George W. Chadwick, the “dean of American musicians,” and the next to the radio premiere of John Alden Carpenter‘s jazz-influenced Skyscrapers. Damrosch devoted his “General Electric Hour” to the works of American composers. Throughout the week, various vocal programs included American songs, some by Edward MacDowell. Surely the biggest production of the week, however, was the “American Fantasy” aired by CBS on May 5th. Under the direction of Howard Barlow, combined orchestras played works of MacDowell, Mortimer Wilson, Henry Hadley, Jerome Kern, and Victor Herbert. In addition, singers performed songs by Griffes and the cantata The Landing of the Pilgrims by Louis A. Coerne.

I find the review of “Music Week” charmingly contemporary. Filled with praise for the efforts of the major radio networks to reach out to American composers, it appears that air time was devoted largely to the “safest” and most patriotic works available. There are, of course, many sides to American music, and I am not implying that Chadwick and MacDowell and Victor Herbert don’t deserve their place in the American pantheon. At the same time, however, it is not hard to understand why radio and the new music community have become estranged.

From Retuning the Dial: Rethinking the Relationship between Radio and New American Music
by Jennifer Undercofler
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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